Monday, July 25, 2011

Women in theatre: let's get rid of the equality myth - Guardian Theatre Blog

Women are under-represented in theatre – not for lack of interest, but because the industry is failing to provide long-term support.

Krystina Nellis Monday 18 July 2011 -

We already know how the cuts in arts funding are going to reduce a lot of good companies to one show a year and possibly put some companies out of business entirely. But what I've not seen any discussion of, anywhere, is how these cuts will affect women working in the industry, possibly even more disproportionately than within other industries. Instead we seem content to parade a few "success stories" as examples of how all-inclusive the arts are, reducing legitimate achievements to a headline and unwittingly shutting the door to more women through sheer ignorance.

The Running in Heels blog recently published a list of successful female theatre practitioners, designed to demonstrate support to those achieving success within the arts. But showcasing a few successful women – often part of corporate structures, an entirely different prospect to the freelancers who actually drive the industry – implies that other women will only be interested in the arts if given permission. While trying to fix something that's not broken we're avoiding addressing the genuine issue of opportunity.

Persisting with the myth that women are under-represented due to lack of interest serves nobody. On my drama school MA alone, there were 30 women and six men on the course – hardly a dearth of interested, intelligent and engaged females. Lack of interest is not the problem; women are already flocking to the industry in their droves. Opportunity to progress, meanwhile, is nowhere near as bountiful. In assuming that simply bringing more women into the industry will fix under-representation, we're addressing completely the wrong issue. Surely the real goal should be supporting women to stay in the industry for longer than a few years, therefore at least partially addressing the frankly ludicrous turnover in the process?

Showcasing already successful women as an example of the industry's "equality" will, also, not help a young stage manager struggling in a career based on living in a different town each week, while managing any number of family obligations. Nor will lists like this negate the fact that a freelance fringe theatre producer is usually self-employed, and thus entitled only to the bare minimum statutory maternity leave. Add to that the fact that the rare staff roles are often more business-oriented than theatre production's creative drive, and we end up presented with the same glass ceiling bemoaned by businesswomen the world over. With those practicalities in mind, is it any wonder that many young women, forced to choose between an unstable career, family or sheer burnout, end up leaving the industry to the next generation of theatre's big cliche, middle-class, white men?

Women in theatre are too often stuck between a rock and a hard place. The work ethic of the arts industries is, by necessity, both notoriously "flexible" and demanding; it is what is thrilling and frustrating about the profession. It cannot be met with a government response to issues like maternity leave which ignores the industry's fundamental quirks, and leaves women with next to no support. The cuts will only make these issues more pressing, diminishing already scarce opportunities for a sustainable career further; opportunities which many women will have to forego due to their personal circumstances.

It will offend some quasi-liberal sensitivities to say so, but if we are truly serious about encouraging more women to achieve success within the arts, it's vital we now stop pretending equality prevails. Maintaining the status quo only prevents us from solutions that will enable women towards a sustainable career path. Until we do, using a few successful corporate examples as poster girls for the industry's supposed equality will only continue to disguise the massive inequality that is many female arts professionals' reality.

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